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‘Biking for all’ to boost ‘Health for all’ at G7 conferences

By Sanam Monteiro
on November 9, 2017

Brussels, 7:00. My alarm rings and I slowly doze off into self-imbued life contemplation before my phone’s News alert forces me to connect with the real world, this big blue room outside my small warm bedroom. I look at my screen, eyes half closed to accommodate to the contrast between the shimmery engine and the comfy twilight of a wintery morning. A picture of motivated people with big smiles and (equally big) backpacks pops up on my screen. They are ready to cycle to Bonn, Germany, where the 23rd edition of the COP is to be held. It has become a tradition now. People cycle from all around Europe to the COPs as a sign of protest, organizing alternative events, sit-ins, and of course questioning the environmental cost of the many planes these leaders are taking every year, including when meeting up to discuss climate change issues. Cycling is a statement that civil society won’t take the lame excuses of world leaders anymore and that real action should happen. Now.

Antwerp, 8:50. I get off my train and head towards the end of the train station to rush out into the Jewish neighborhood, its smell of warm bread and its crazy bikers. The weather is crisp but the traffic around the beautiful Central Station, on the sidewalks and in the parks doesn’t leave you the time to get cold and complain about it as you have to inventively slalom between bicycles and pedestrians. By the time I reach the ITM campus, I consider my cardio of the day over – PS: I seriously consider getting one of these bicycle cards to cycle my way through instead of walking. Bikes are also a statement in this city, but a rather different one. It is cheaper, it is eco-friendly, it doesn’t make noise, and denotes a general disgust for consumption as well as a self-awareness of one’s impact on the environment. Well, at least, that’s how I hope these bikers to think.

Sint-Rochusstraat, 9:20. I arrive at ITM’s former convent on the 2nd floor, which features my desk and a warm cup of tea (as well as some other hard working interns). ITM and still no solar panels, recycled material computers or power charging bikes for our mobiles and laptops. ITM, rightly emphasizing the importance of climate change in global health yet still sending far too many staff flying across the globe to conferences, advisory committees and the like. Has ITM done enough in this regard? That’s an ongoing discussion among the ITM sustainability working group, I’ve been told, but it’s also a question central to ITM’s work: what is the right balance between discussions and actions, may it be in the field of climate change or concerning global health as a whole? This is not an easy trade off but it’s a rather common one, and so are the lame excuses to make up for it which, in this regard, seem to be embedded in ITM researchers’ speeches as much as in COP participants’ official declarations.

Later in the afternoon, an internal meeting brought on the table examples of “high politics” global health meetings such as the World Health Summit in Berlin, or the most recent G7 Health Ministers’ summit in Italy. Questions were raised whether these were not too aloof and far from the ground. To take the words of Richard Horton : “For the first time, a G20 Presidency had placed global health at the centre of the group’s discussions. What an opportunity. They flunked it.” This statement didn’t go unnoticed and sparkled quite some controversies at the time – but if that was his take on the G20 summit in Berlin, I wonder what he thinks of the G7 Milan Health Ministers’ Communiqué, a lofty communiqué that aimed to address, among others, climate change issues yet stayed as vague and diplomatic as it could to gain “consensus” among all participants (arguably, not an easy task with the USA among its ranks).

And so the G7 health ministers stated in 47 well-crafted bullet points, 9 pages, everything they had to say: platitudes, mostly. By statement n°5 they had embarked upon a rather wordy wish list sketching the global health agenda without really providing much detail on how to address these issues, finance solutions and take intermediary steps. By statement n°11 they had pretty much addressed everything, yet they had addressed nothing. By statement n°25 they were pushing the hypocrisy so far as to address the question of refugees some of them are themselves bombing (directly or indirectly), creating not only migrants but destruction as well.

I wonder what the bikers would think of these general recommendations on climate change and health. Maybe they should’ve biked to the G7 too. Milan isn’t that far from Bonn after all. And maybe we should too. Maybe showing these health ministers what real commitment towards climate change and global health looks like would make them build this “political momentum” they seemed to “recognize” as being of key importance in their concluding remarks but failed to build when they had the power to in the 8 previous pages. Or if they don’t effectively have this power, if like all of us they are accountable to a bigger boss, then at least they should take the first step to lead the way towards real understanding of global health issues. And maybe they should bike with us too.

In sum, the G7 ministerial meeting was as broad, lofty and general as expected, full of wonderful intentions and reiterating of commitments. As The Lancet had already put it in 2015, reflecting on the G7 summit in  Schloss Elmau, Germany: “Although these commitments are welcome proof of political will, actions (not advocacy) must now follow”. The problem remains so here’s a suggestion: maybe if our health ministers were a little bit less “in the air” and a little bit more “on the ground” they would understand what the real issues at hand are and what needs to be done to address them. Certainly with respect to environmental impacts on health. Yet for that to happen, we have to show them the way.

Conferences gathering researchers from all around the world, to exchange on their science & challenges and to reflect on how to solve them are great but do they manage to tickle Modi’s moustache, Trump’s wig or Xi Jinping’s double chin ? Not at all. As ever, engaging with politicians is crucial. Last time I checked, we hadn’t biked to any G-Conference to make our case yet. So dear (greying & balding) researchers, time to get out of your offices and do some real cardio. Or if you find the big blue room a bit too grey lately, time to install power charging bikes to fuel your computers and send your young interns instead.  

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